Children walk past a large poster of a man next to a rocket

Sergei Korolev achieves lift-off

On 20 July 1969, American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the Moon, speaking the now ubiquitous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The Moon landing rocketed the United States ahead of the Soviet Union in the “race to space”.

NASA says the race was initiated on 4 October 1957 with the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik I, “the world’s first artificial satellite”, which “orbited the Earth in 98 minutes on an elliptical path”.

The space agency says that although Sputnik I was “relatively small in size, its impact was huge. Americans did not want to be left in the dust by the Soviet Union’s technological advances.”

As Astronomy magazine reminds us, “In the early 1960s, the Cold War was in full swing and the Space Race was on. The Soviets were eager to notch as many “firsts” as they could in all realms of spaceflight. At that time, they had a better heavy-lifting capability than the United States. This allowed them to build and launch larger spacecraft, both manned and unmanned. And by using four-stage rockets and an advanced telemetry system, the Soviets could also mount missions to the difficult-to-reach inner planets.”

At the forefront of the Soviet space program was Sergei Korolev, hailed by the European Space Agency as “the man responsible for the first human spaceflight”.


Read more history: John Maynard Keynes figures the odds


“Although the world knew of his achievements – Sputnik, Vostok, Soyuz – the man himself remained a total mystery until his death, as his identity was a well-kept state secret,” ESA says.

“A victim of Stalinism, after his death he became an icon of Russian rocketry and both his rocket and spaceship designs are still flying today.”

Korolev was born on 12 January 1907 in Zhytomyr, part of the Russian Empire, in modern-day Ukraine. ESA says that as a youth he was “fascinated by aircraft” and at 17 designed his first glider.

NASA takes up the story, explaining that Korolev was “trained in aeronautical engineering at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute and, after receiving a secondary education, co-founded the Moscow rocketry organisation GIRD (Gruppa Isutcheniya Reaktivnovo Dvisheniya, Group for Investigation of Reactive Motion)”.

By the early 1930s, NASA says, the Soviets were testing liquid-fuelled rockets of increasing size.

Russian rocket engineer Sergey Korolyov (centre) with cosmonauts, Crimea, USSR, c1960. Credit: Heritage Images / Contributor / Getty Images

GIRD was soon taken over by Soviet military interests and became the RNII (Reaction Propulsion Scientific Research Institute), which developed rocket-propelled missiles and gliders during the 1930s, “culminating in Korolev’s RP-318, Russia’s first rocket-propelled aircraft,” NASA says.

But here is where Korolev’s tale takes on a distinctly Stalinist tone. NASA says that before his aircraft could make a rocket-propelled flight, “Korolev and other aerospace engineers were thrown into the Soviet prison system in 1937–1938 during the peak of Stalin’s purges.”

When Stalin recognised the importance of these engineers in helping the country prepare for the impending Second World War, however, Korolev and others were moved from gulags and labour camps and put to work developing new weapons in “prison design bureaus”.

In 1945, after the war, Korolev was sent to Germany to salvage what he could from its rocketry program – “Wernher von Braun and the best elements of the German rocket design team had moved to the United States,” ESA says.

The following year, a new research centre was set up in Russia and, although still a political prisoner, Korolev was made chief engineer. One of the centre’s first products was the R1 rocket, “the forerunner of a family of missiles known in the west under their NATO codename: Scud,” according to ESA.

In 1953, Korolev received approval to develop what NASA says was “the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the R-7 … It was Korolev’s R-7 ICBM that launched Sputnik 1 on 4 October 1957.”

The R-7, ESA says, “was based on a concept of stacked stages once considered by the Germans”.

On 3 November, Sputnik 2 was launched, carrying the dog Laika, the first animal to orbit Earth.

“Korolev and the R-7 rapidly scored yet more firsts: the first probe to the Moon, the first picture of the far side of the Moon and the first probes to Venus and Mars,” ESA says.

It was Korolev, NASA says, who in the early 1960s campaigned to send a Soviet cosmonaut to the Moon.

“Following the initial reconnaissance of the Moon by Lunas 1, 2, and 3, Korolev established three largely independent efforts aimed at achieving a Soviet lunar landing before the Americans.

“The next big challenge was to place a man into orbit and return him safely to Earth. After a series of test flights using dummy astronauts and dogs, Vostok was launched into space by an improved version of the R-7 rocket on 12 April 1961. On board was Yuri Gagarin.”

Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and rocket engineer Sergey Korolyov, 1961. Pictured at Baikonur Cosmodrome, USSR. Credit: Heritage Images / Contributor / Getty Images

Korolev, meanwhile, continued to be hindered by the Soviet system. ESA says he was widely criticised by high-ranking military officials and competing engineers who claimed his missiles were “poorly designed for a strategic role”.

Korolev “remained undismayed by his critics,” ESA says: “The R-7 may not have been very useful as a weapon but it was the best space launcher of its time.”

In 1965, Korolev was diagnosed with cancer and underwent colon surgery, but he died on the operating table on 14 January 1966 (NASA says he “died from a botched hemorrhoid operation”).

After Korolev’s death, “the Russian space program experienced numerous difficulties,” ESA says. “The Soyuz spacecraft and the R-7 launcher – whose latest version is also known as Soyuz – remain the workhorses of the Russian space program and are still active more than 40 years after their designer’s death.

“Both designs still have potential for further evolution, proof of Korolev’s talent.”